Tel Aviv is one of the world’s youngest cities, yet it is also a Unesco World Heritage site. It was built on a sand dune, and each year 2.5m travellers flock to its 24-hour whirl of cafés, bars and restaurants. It is a global centre of banking and commerce, and a popular place for culture-hungry backpackers and hedonistic beach-bums.
The city’s name sums up the contradiction at its heart; in Hebrew, a “Tel” is a man-made mound accumulating layers of civilisation and symbolising the ancient, while “Aviv” translates as “spring” and symbolises renewal.
Nowhere is this tension more apparent than in the architecture of the city itself. A building boom in the 1930s saw the construction of more than 4,000 buildings in the new Bauhaus style, which gradually fell into disrepair as more contemporary buildings were created.
But within the past decade, not only has work begun to restore the White City, as Tel Aviv is sometimes known, but it is becoming a design centre, with a growing number of high-concept industrial shops and furniture outlets. Organisations such as Designed in Israel and Talents Design encourage and foster young designers, and the city is once again in the midst of a creative boom.
Tel Aviv was founded in 1909, when 66 Jewish families decided to create a garden city near Jaffa and divided up the land using a lottery of seashells. The first buildings were typical of the area: single-storey with sloping roofs. Then, during the 1930s, a number of Jewish architects who had trained at the Bauhaus school in Germany fled the Nazis and headed to Palestine.
Between 1931 and 1937, they embarked on a building spree. This was partly down to luck: in 1925, the city authorities had adopted a scheme by Sir Patrick Geddes, a Scottish biologist, sociologist and town planner, for the design of the city.
For the newly arrived architects the timing was perfect, as they found themselves commissioned to create hundreds of new apartment buildings.
The Bauhaus style was based on a few simple rules: it was minimalistic, asymmetric and restrained. Decorative elements that served no purpose were omitted. In Tel Aviv, these rules were adapted to suit the local climate.
The new buildings were raised on pillars, known as pilotis, to allow the sea breeze to circulate and to prevent dust from coming inside. Roofs were flat to provide gardens where residents could socialise. Balconies were added, and the odd decorative feature also crept in, with fish ponds and statues at the entrances to many of the apartment blocks. Finally the concrete was painted white, and the city earned its nickname.
Micha Gross, director of Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus Centre, says: “The ponds are empty now, but you can still see them, and some of the sculptures are still there. It’s like a fairy-tale world where everyone has fallen asleep.”
Internally, the apartments are similar; usually two bedrooms, a small kitchen and a sitting room where parents often slept as their families grew. In some cases, residents put roofs over their balconies to create more space.
Yael Mer, who runs design studio Raw Edges with her partner, Shay Alkalay, was born in Tel Aviv and has lived in Bauhaus buildings both there and in Jerusalem.
“They are the perfect flats for the Israeli climate,” she says. “Even though they are small, they never feel claustrophobic because the ceilings are so high and they are so airy.”
The Bauhaus buildings were renowned for their beautiful floors. Mer, whose studio recently won a commission to create the floors for all of Stella McCartney’s new stores around the world, says that her love of colours and shapes stems from the environment in which she grew up.
“The floors were geometric patterns in strong natural colours of ochre, mustard and orange. The 1950s aesthetic is still very strong in Tel Aviv, minimal furniture – we call it skinny – made from wood. It is very influenced by Scandinavian design, and textiles tend to also come from the same time frame and echo the geometric patterns of the old tiles.”
Sadly, most of the city’s original tiled floors have disappeared. They were ripped out during the 1970s and replaced with laminate or parquet, which was thought to be easier to clean. But the movement to restore these buildings is gathering pace. In 1991, the city created its Department of Modern Heritage Preservation and hired the architect Nitza Szmuk to try and preserve what was left.
“We saved about 300 buildings in six years,” says Szmuk, adding that it has not been easy. “The word Bauhaus meant nothing to most of the residents living in these classically designed buildings,” she says. “I had to convince them and pressure them to consider their houses works of art.”
The Bauhaus buildings are now extremely desirable and prices are about 10 per cent higher than in the rest of the city. Nuri Rachamim, office manager at Rozio Real Estate, says: “The average price is about $8,500 per sq metre for a new building, rising to $10,000 for a Bauhaus apartment. Unlike the US and Europe, where prices have fallen, Tel Aviv has not been as affected and there is currently huge demand.”
Alongside this revival of Tel Aviv’s real estate, design is gaining momentum. Yossy Goldberg, 42, is often hailed as the grandfather of this new movement. He set up his shop, Elemento, a decade ago, to try and establish a reputation for good design in his country.
Goldberg is inspired by designs of the 1960s and 1970s, and has reinterpreted many of these with luxurious fabrics and rich layers of colour.
“Ten years ago there was only average and below-average design. There was nothing that we could be proud of,” he says.
“That is changing. Design has become very fashionable and the number of schools has increased as it becomes a hot subject. People have realised that they can have colour and choice, and now they think about the space they live in and what they want to put in it.”
Goldberg credits this to the opening of an Ikea in the city in 2001. “Suddenly people realised that they could afford good design, and that there was choice.”
Goldberg himself lives in a Bauhaus apartment, which he has decorated in neutral greys and whites, with a few brightly coloured accessories.
“Sadly, the tiled floors have gone, but now it is the law that if you have any original features you have to keep them and restore them,” he says.
“Ten years ago the city was falling apart, but over the past two or three it has changed so much and it looks great.”
The future looks bright for Tel Aviv’s designers. Goldberg already has a branch in New York and is hoping to open a London shop in the near future.
Yael Mer says that designers in Tel Aviv are now banding together to work in studios, rather than having to leave to find work. Meanwhile the Israel Community of Designers, a non-profit organisation founded in 2004 to represent the country’s professional designers, is working to promote its members both nationally and internationally.
Design: Starck’s lemon squeezer
One day Italian designer Alberto Alessi received a letter in the mail from Philippe Starck. Inside was a greasy paper napkin filled with roughly drawn pictures. “The sketches were going from left to right,” says Alessi. “On the left was an octopus, and as it went across the page it was turning into the lemon squeezer.”
The sketches were to become the Juicy Salif lemon squeezer.
“I must say this was one of a only a couple of times where I immediately understood the piece and knew that it would become a masterpiece,” he says. “I am usually slow to understand things but this was immediate. I could see that it so impressively expressed the spirit of the moment.”
The story goes that Starck had been having lunch with his wife and daughter when he realised that he had no lemon for his calamari. Summoning the waiter, he was seized by an idea and began scribbling on his napkin.
The napkin is now in the Alessi museum in Milan. Although the Juicy Salif features in kitchens around the world, it remains a controversial piece. Some say it doesn’t work very well; others celebrate it as a perfect example of form over function.
Michael Czerwinski, who is responsible for the public art programme at London’s Design Museum, says: “Starck has imbued what was a perfectly adequate kitchen drawer-filler with aspirational desirability and a lack of juicing prowess.”
Even Alessi thinks of it as more a striking design than a practical squeezer. “I guess it is not its main purpose to squeeze lemons. I feel it was designed by Philippe expressly to generate discussion about its meaning and its design.”
Starck has publicly agreed with Alessi, saying of his piece that it was never meant to actually squeeze a lemon but to start a conversation.